Maine has more lobsters than it knows what to do with.
With catches more than double what they were a decade ago — due to more fishermen, fewer predators, warmer water, and good conservation — the industry is struggling with pricing pressure and distribution constraints. Processing is the best way to expand distribution, but it’s an underdeveloped industry, currently dominated by the Canadians.
Shucks Maine Lobster, an innovative processor near Portland is looking to expand operations. Shucks is one of just 16 processors in the state, according to the company’s president John Hathaway. It’s the only place in the United States that uses water pressure rather than cooking to loosen the meat from the shell, allowing workers to extract the meat in one piece.
This processing method allows Shucks to sell packaged lobster in its raw form, producing a fresher meal for buyers around the country. Restaurants and supermarkets can use the product in lieu of live lobsters, which are expensive to ship and store. Individual consumers like the so-called “Lazy Man’s Lobster” because they don’t have to deal with the trauma and mess of boiling and shucking a live lobster.
It’s an impressive product, but the local industry still faces obstacles. Building new processing plants won’t be cheap, and Shucks’ multimillion dollar high pressure processor is particularly expensive. Then there’s the challenge of developing a new market.
“There’s a huge demand for Maine lobster,” Hathaway said. “Outside of New England there are 300 million people that would potentially buy lobster if it were delivered in a convenient way.” The biggest obstacle, he added, “is distribution and opening up those channels from the East Coast to West Coast and in between.”
We toured the Shucks plant for a closer look at this innovative technology.
One of just 16 processing facilities in the state, Shucks can process up to 30,000 pounds of soft-shell lobsters each day.
Their busiest time is in the summer, when soft-shell lobsters are most abundant because it's the time of year when lobsters moult their shell.
The basket is then lowered down into the machine, measuring two stories tall, and the chamber is filled with fresh water.
Large pumps increase the water pressure to 87,000 pounds per square inch. That's about five times the pressure in the deepest parts of the ocean, or the equivalent of having 250 jumbo jets stacked on top of one person.
The pressure is distributed evenly on all sides so that within about 60 seconds, the meat starts to detach from the shell without damaging the lobster.
The process is like putting a grape inside a plastic water bottle, filling it with water, and then squeezing the outside of the bottle, according to Shucks president John Hathaway. The pressure on the grape is equal from all sides so the grape does not get squished or deformed.
The enormous amount of pressure also kills off any bacteria and other pathogens. In the early 2000s, oyster processors in Louisiana were using water pressure to prolong the shelf life of their seafood when they discovered that it also shucked oysters from their shells. Hathaway realised this technique could also be used to loosen lobster meat from the shell. Previously, the only other way to get lobster meat out its shell was by cooking it.
The lobsters come out of the Mother Shucker after about six minutes and are dumped into large troughs.
Some of the lobster is flash frozen while it is still in the shell and then packaged. Shucks sells the whole lobster this way or just the tails.
Another specialty item is the 'Naked Lobster.' The meat from the lobster, including two claws, two knuckles, and the tail are packaged all together.
Hathaway even puts his cell phone number and email address on the back of each box in case customers have questions about the product.
Shucks is currently looking to expand its operations and is trying to lock down a facility in Portland, which would allow the company to double the amount of lobster is processes.
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